JEFF BRADY: I'm Jeff Brady in Denver. Ever since Southern white voters switched to the Republican Party, Democrats have been asking how the party can win back the South.
Mr. GARY HART (Former Colorado Senator): And I kept saying, hello, there's half a country West of the Mississippi.
BRADY: Gary Hart is a former Colorado senator and presidential candidate. He's been telling fellow Democrats for about three decades that they should focus efforts on the interior West to make up for some of those electoral votes lost in the South. Now a political science professor from the University of Maryland has taken that theory a step further. Tom Schaller says Democrats should make the South their last priority. After all, both Al Gore and John Kerry came close to winning without getting even one electoral vote from the South. Schaller says the West may prove more productive for Democrats.
Professor THOMAS F. SCHALLER (Political Science, University of Maryland): Doesn't mean they wouldn't want to win the South as well. It just means that they can get a majority without much help from the South. And, in fact, that's what they've been doing recently.
BRADY: Schaller points to states that have been Republican strongholds in presidential elections: Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and Arizona. These states have elected Republicans for president in nearly all of the previous 10 elections. But now all four states have Democratic governors. Montana voters gave three-term Republican Senator Conrad Burns the boot in November. And there have been significant Democratic gains in Colorado.
Tom Schaller says Democrats can win the presidency if they give up their preoccupation with the South.
Prof. SCHALLER: Democrats, for the first time in 52 years, find themselves the majority party in Congress despite being the minority party in the South.
BRADY: But giving up on the South is naïve, according to Don Fowler, a longtime force in Southern Democratic politics.
Mr. DON FOWLER (Former Chairman, Democratic National Committee): No Democratic presidential candidate has ever won the presidency without carrying some Southern states, never, ever, ever.
BRADY: Recognizing the concerns of party leaders from the South like Fowler, Democrats under Howard Dean's leadership have adopted a 50-state strategy. Instead of shifting resources from one part of the country to another, the party says it's hiring organizers in every state. Gary Hart agrees with that strategy, but he says if presidential candidates are going to win in the West, they'd do well to study local politics.
Mr. HART: There are three parties in the West: one is Democrat, one is Republican, and the other is independent. Political fortunes are made in this region by which way the third party goes, the independents.
BRADY: Hart says those unaffiliated voters have a libertarian streak. They were attracted to traditional Republican philosophy of limited government spending and setting a high bar for overseas military adventures. Hart says you can see why these folks might be interested in candidates from other parties these days. But he says they're not a lock for Democrats. And to attract these voters, a western accent won't be enough.
Mr. HART: We can smell a phony about a hundred miles away. We've got a lot of practice. And if somebody thinks they can come out here, buy a new pair of cowboy boots and win the West, they better think again.
BRADY: Hart says candidates will have to talk about what's important in the West. Voters here tend to be more concerned about natural resource issues like oil and gas drilling, than the social issues that tend to dominate politics elsewhere.
Recently, Democrats announced their 2008 convention will be in Denver. And the party has put Nevada's caucus in between Iowa and New Hampshire. It appears Democrats have learned one thing about the interior West - it's no longer just flyover territory.
Jeff Brady, NPR News, Denver.
MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.